Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 4: The Celibate Priest Is At Your Service

"Let the dead bury their dead" (Lk 9:60) said Christ when refusing to accept as an apostle one who first wanted to go home to bury his father. Christ was canvassing for a band of full time disciples, not for part timers. This requirement for the priesthood, which is institutionalized in celibacy, has proven its inestimable value - spiritual gold and diamonds - for parishioners during the 20 centuries of Church life.

A problem arose in the newly-born Church in Jerusalem: Greek Jews complained that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The Twelve decided to look into the matter by consulting with the community. Together they decided: "It would not be right for us (the apostles) to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2). They therefore ordained seven deacons to serve practical needs of the community, so that the apostles could give full time attention "to prayer and the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4).

Celibacy fortifies this primeval policy of the Church, by enabling priests to specialize in "the ministry of the word." The 2000 year history of the Church demonstrates that the increased availability for the apostolate which celibacy permits, serves the spiritual needs of her people non-stop and admirably.

Emperor Justinian's Reflections on Celibacy

Emperor Justinian (483-565), explained in his Code of Laws two great reasons why bishops should be free of family cares: 1) to emancipate them from secular duties so that they can devote themselves with full heart to ecclesiastical obligations; 2) to create trust in the people that the alms they give to the Church will not be diverted to enrich the families of bishops.

Justinian, an able administrator, brought together in his Code the scattered records of ecclesiastical and Roman laws, legislative records, and legal opinions, under one title; he promulgated its first version in 528.

The Emperor, a caesaro-papist of the Byzantine tradition, controlled the ordination of bishops. And, not without meaning for the Emperor, the bishops held the sole title to ecclesiastical properties in their respective territories. Parish priests, on the contrary, did not own Church properties, and could not will any of it to their children. By controlling the appointment of bishops, the Emperor could indirectly keep the management of Church possessions in his hands. Astutely, he forbade the ordination of bishops who had children, who would want to will Church properties to them. He explained the policy in a letter dated March 1, 528, to Atarbius, Prefect of the Praetorium:

That is why it is fitting to elect and ordain as bishops men who have neither children nor grandchildren, considering that is not possible for a man subjected to concerns of daily life, especially those that children bring to their parents, to apply all his zeal and spirit to divine liturgy and ecclesiastical matters.

Because some people, through the effect of their hope in God and for the salvation of their souls, rush to the very holy Churches, bringing their goods and giving them up to be spent for the unfortunate and poor and for other pious uses, it is quite unfitting for bishops to take them for their personal profit or spend them for their own children and families. Because the bishops must not be hindered by natural inclination toward the children of his own flesh and must be the spiritual father of all the faithful, we now forbid ordaining as bishop anyone who has children or grandchildren (Codex Justinianus, I,3,41; trans. of Christian Cochini, SJ, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, p.353).

We might question the sincerity of Justinian who appears to apply a double standard. Why does he forbid the ordination of bishops with children, and not that of priests? Are not both ranks of the clergy obliged to apply all their "zeal and spirit to divine liturgy and ecclesiastical matters?"

In fact, legislation for priests and deacons also appears in an addendum to the Code dated 546, which accepts the discipline prevalent at the time: no deacon or priest is ever allowed to marry after ordination, under pain of being expelled from the clerical position (Novella 123, 14; see Cochini, 172). Suitable married men, however, could be admitted to ordination.

Furthermore, it was the discipline of the Church from time immemorial, as we shall describe in subsequent writings, to require that married men abstain from sexual intercourse with their wives after ordination. Father Cochini demonstrates cogently that this tradition must date back to the apostles themselves. The Justinian Code, in this context, prohibited priests who had children from becoming bishops. Although married priests and deacons, in many cases, had children who were born before the time of their ordination, these children would not inherit Church property which was under the sole ownership of the bishop. Justinian thus prevented all clerics from willing Church property to their children. The reasoning of the Justinian Code - a product of centuries of legislation - applies with equal validity today as in ancient times.

Availability of Priests Is Fostered by Celibacy

The celibacy of priests, for the twin reasons mentioned by Justinian, has subtle consequences of great importance in day-to-day parish life. Young and old alike nourish their life of faith through the full time pastor who is there to serve them; to baptize the babies, to celebrate their first Holy Communion, to offer Sunday Mass, to forgive sins, to witness weddings, to anoint the sick, and to bury the dead. The joys and tragedies of all are reflected in the heart of their pastor, whose pervasive presence welds the community into one spiritual piece. He is available to all, has time and love for each, recalls their attention to the afterlife, lifts them out of the monotony of secular pressures, gives them an alternative to the intrusive drumming of the one-dimensional horizontal message of the media.

We treasure in our hearts nostalgic memories of the influence of priests in our lives. I recall my childhood spent in rural Westphalia, Iowa. We all knew the pastor of our St. Boniface Church, but I don't recall who was mayor in the village.

The secular media may have trivialized sex, but for us the pastor gave it inspiring spiritual dimensions. Married life began in church under his watchful eye: "Do you take this person for your lawful wife? For you lawful husband?" Their becoming one in the flesh is now very sacred. Before the wedding the priest had ascertained whether their intentions were serious, whether they would agree to stay together for life, and educate their children in the faith.

The pastor visited the sick and prayed with the family. When death came, his presence was a comfort; his words at the Funeral Mass raised our thoughts to eternity. He led the prayers asking God to forgive their sins, to give them eternal rest. Incense and holy water lent dignity to the memory of the departed. The priest's words made us want to be good, so that only good things would be said of us when we die.

The monthly Saturday night confession was always a check on us: were we abandoning ourselves to sin, or shall we get hold of ourselves again to keep the rules? By telling our sins to the priest, and obtaining God's forgiveness through him, we kept our signals straight.

Sunday Mass was the fulcrum of the weekly rhythm of activities. At St. Boniface the first Mass was at eight, and we struggled to finish the chores to make it in time. The ten o'clock High Mass with the long sermon re-ignited our faith to make it the dominant influence in our moral lives. The presence at Mass of the wimpled School Sisters of St. Francis, who sat in the benches with their respective classes, effectively controlled temptations of children to slouch or to misbehave.

The priest was for us children - and surely for the grown-ups in the parish - a continuous reminder of the ten commandments and of our coming life in eternity. I remember my shock as a child, when I heard that our pastor had gone swimming in a lake. A priest swimming? And in a swimming suit? It just didn't fit to my image of the priest, who always wore cassock and biretta, who was a man of God and not of this world.

The sweetest picture in the memory is Christmas: how we came to church from the cold and darkness outside, to see the glow of candles around the crib, to hear the sweetest melody on earth: the pipe organ playing "Silent Night." The pastor intoned the Gospel with compelling solemnity; we heard in it the vibrant proclamation of the angels to the shepherds at Bethlehem. For me in my childhood the virgin beauty of the Christmas Mass at dawn was a foretaste of heaven itself.

The celibate priest - he stands astride earth and heaven for his parishioners. He draws them into his heart where their faith pulses together with his. The ties with their pastor makes their hearts soar to higher things during the great passages of life.

"Jesus did not promulgate a law, but proposed the ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood He was instituting" stated the Pope in his address of 17 July 1993. But he added that celibacy belongs to the priesthood by a law of logic:

These observations help us to understand the reasons for the Church's legislation on priestly celibacy. In fact, the church has considered and still considers that it belongs to the logic of priestly consecration and to the total belonging to Christ resulting from it, in order consciously to fulfill his mandate of evangelization and the spiritual life (General Audience, 17 July 1993).

The gentle Pope John XXIII asks that we struggle to keep the obligations of celibacy, especially when the Church needs heroic people to be the salt of the earth:

It deeply hurts us that ... anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory, always an emblem of victory, that is, the Church of Christ, free, chaste, and catholic (John XXIII, to Roman Synod, Jan. 26, 1960; quoted by Paul VI, "The Celibacy of the Priest" No. 37, June 24, 1967).

Next Page: Chapter 5: The Celibate Priest - His Prayer Has Power
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